Browsing articles in "Reviews"
Mar
25

Album Review – Johnny Cash’s “Out Among The Stars”

March 25, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  9 Comments

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I’m not certain that the impact of Johnny Cash getting dropped from the CBS/Columbia record label that had been his home for nearly 30 years has ever been fully appreciated. It truly was the end of an era, or the beginning of one depending on how you want to look at it. It stimulated a young Marty Stuart (an understudy of Cash) to get int the face of  Columbia executive, resulting in him eventually being ejected from the label. It made Merle Haggard tell Rick Blackburn, the man responsible for Cash’s firing, “You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.” And it also meant that an entire, cohesive album from one of the most well-respected artists in the history of American music went unheard for 30 years after its original recording. This is the type of peril American music is put through at the hands of suits, that such a ridiculous, unintuitive aberration could transpire in the custody of one person’s art, especially the art of Johnny Cash.

Out Among The Stars is a difficult album to critique. Since it was originally crafted to be heard by the public some 30 years ago, with stylings and sensibilities more steeped in the country modes of that time, it’s hard to know how to calibrate your ear to this music. Compounding this problem is the information that some, or all of the tracks have been “fortified” by a team that included Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and others to be more akin to what a modern ear might expect. Then you pile on top of all of that the fact that some of these songs like “She Used To Love Me A Lot” and “Out Among The Stars” have already wormed themselves into our brains with versions from other artists. It would not be fair to call Cash’s versions “cover” songs because of the way the timeline sits. They are simply Cash’s takes of contemporary tunes that were never heard because of the nature of this project. Nonetheless you can’t help but compare these “new” versions to the ones you’re more familiar with.

While you’re listening to Out Among The Stars, you almost feel like Marty McFly contemplating the strange space-time continuum this project puts you in, asking yourself, “Would the 1984 me like this? And do I like it now?” The mid 80′s was its own strange time in country music as well. Just listen to the introduction to Willie Nelson’s version of “Pancho & Lefty”. Johnny Cash amidst his recovery from drug addiction wasn’t the only one trying to find his compass; the entire genre of country was. The original Out Among The Stars sessions were produced by Billy Sherrill of all people—a producer known as one of the masterminds of the countrypolitan or Nashville Sound. As strange as it was for him to be working with Johnny Cash, at the same time he was working with wildman David Allan Coe, trying to revitalize Coe’s career as well. Billy Sherrill—one of the principles the Outlaws had risen up against—was now one of their brothers in arms. A strange time in country indeed.

johnny-cash-out-among-the-starsThen you take the emotional quotient of simply being able to hear the legendary voice of Johnny Cash again in completely unheard, studio-quality content, and it’s hard to hold onto any and all objectivity. Even if Out Among The Stars was a verbatim recitation of the Nashville Metropolitan phone book circa 1984, this album is a gift from beyond that any sane country music fan would dare not stare too long in the mouth.

The reason that Out Among The Stars became “lost,” and Johnny Cash got dropped from Columbia is because nobody knew what to do with him, including Johnny himself. In some respects, the song material on this album is somewhat indicative of this searching for direction. It is sort of the take of two Johnnys—one introspective, dark, and even disturbed at times, and the other the more “aw-shucks” Arkansas boy. Musically, whether the fault of Sherill or the super-team assembled to deal with the recordings in the present day, is where Out Among The Stars shows cohesion and confidence. Though some of the songs might be more fit for the 80′s country listener, the music throughout is timeless.

The somewhat cornpone and timecasted song “If I Told You Who It Was” is where the album most shows off it’s 80′s stripes, but Cash’s versions of “Out Among The Stars” and “She Used To Love Me A Lot”, the melancholic “Call Your Mother,” to the downright sadistic “I Drove Her Out Of My Mind” are right in the mode of classic Johnny Cash whose willing to delve deep into the darker side of life. These are balanced by the sweet and simple approach of songs like “Tennessee” that expires in an uplifting chorus signature to Billy Sherrill’s touch, and the sweet duets with June Carter “Don’t You Think It’s Come” and “Baby Ride Easy”. The organ/piano combination, combined with the fairly sappy lyrics of “After All” might make it the album’s most forgettable track, while “Rock & Roll Shoes” and the cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” with Waylon Jennings check in as the album’s most fun tunes.

Johnny Cash left music, and left the world behind at the top of his game, having been revitalized and resurrected in the public consciousness as the result of his American Recordings era, leaving the crowd wanting more as all great entertainers do. Though Out Among The Stars may not reach the high critical acclaim Cash set for himself in the last era of his career, it is a more than worthy offering allowing the Man in Black to once again live among us in our hearts and imaginations, leaving the listener ruminating on the historic accomplishments of a man whose musical accomplishments will never be equaled.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Preview & Purchase Tracks from Out Among The Stars

Mar
22

The Lingering Influence of Emmylou’s “Wrecking Ball”

March 22, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  18 Comments

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In February it was announced that the the era-defining album Wrecking Ball released in 1995 by country music songstress Emmylou Harris was getting the reissue treatment, with a remastering of the original album, a new disc of demos and outtakes, and a DVD delving into the making of the album, all set to be released on April 8th.

If you’re not familiar with the Emmylou Harris discography or the influence Wrecking Ball has had on the modern country ear, you may wonder why this was the album picked out of the choir for a reissue, and why now. Wrecking Ball wasn’t a particularly great seller. Released when Emmylou was 48, the former Gram Parsons understudy had settled in as a “legacy” act in country, and was already well off the radar of country radio and award show attention by the time of the release. So why not stretch your wings and try something different? And try something different she did.

emmylou-harris-wrecking-ballThe influence of Wrecking Ball is evoked on Saving Country Music, and many other country and Americana websites regularly. Its impact on alt-country and Americana may only be outdone by Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 album No Depression, or Steve Earle’s late 80′s Guitar Town, and may not be outdone by any when it comes to the alt-country subset sometimes described as “progressive” country, or specifically when it comes to influencing the women in alt-country and Americana. And in the nearly 20 years since it was originally released, Wrecking Ball‘s influence hasn’t waned a bit, as one female artist after another tries to match or best its watermark.

Many country purists hated Wrecking Ball when it was first released. Early on in Emmylou’s career, some in country’s traditional ranks had been leery of the Alabama-born singer because of her folk rock past and her carousing with Gram Parsons. But in the wake of Gram’s passing, Emmylou won over nearly the entirety of the country music listening public with the sheer power of her voice, and her propensity to mix traditional country material with her more folk-oriented songs. By 1995, Emmylou’s career had been defined as a songbird, and as an acoustic, almost bluegrass-like performer, and a counter-balance to country’s newly-defined stadium era with superstars like Garth Brooks.

And then here came Wrecking Ball, completely unexpected, crashing through the conventional thinking on Emmylou. It was produced by Daniel Lanois for crying out loud; a guy known best for working with the rock band U2. Country critics for the first time were having to employ words like “atmospheric” and “spatial” to describe what they were hearing. Instead of working with more conventional cast of country songwriters and session players on the album, Emmylou had assembled Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Neil Young, and even covered (however subdued) a Jimi Hendrix song.

Though at its core, the themes of Wrecking Ball were still very traditional. The song “All My Tears” written by Buddy Miller’s wife Julie, was a spirited Gospel song, despite the strange burpings that comprise the sonic bed of the composition. Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” placed in the center of the album had a very subdued, acoustic approach to ground the album from getting too weird. But the sweeping, bold, alternative thinking and approach to how Wrecking Ball presented its songs would be by far the biggest takeaway and the most lasting impact of this album in the end.

In the crux of the current culture war for the heart of country music is the argument being made by mainstream, commercially successful males that country music must progress. But the answer of how country music can progress why still holding on to the spirit of its roots has been held in the women of country for almost two decades, and it arguably started with Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball. Rhythmic elements that capture the attention of fresh ears, while not sacrificing melody or the thematic heart of what makes country music special, is the splendid balance that Emmylou Harris forged on Wrecking Ball.

emmylou-harris-2Wrecking Ball also birthed some indelible compositions, specifically the title track written by Neil Young, the haunting, ominous “Deeper Well,” and the first song “Where Will I Be?” written by producer Daniel Lanois. But really you can’t go wrong with any track on Wrecking Ball.

However the legacy for this album is not all rosy. Just like the influence of Emmylou’s mentor Gram Parsons that while spreading the message of country music to a wider audience incidentally spawned some watered-down West Coast offshoots, so has Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball made some producers and artists unnecessarily strive to reach a similar bar or to make a similar sound instead of trying to find a better approach more within the true style of the artist and the era. One of the most interesting notes about Wrecking Ball and its live followup from a few years later called Spyboy is that it was preceded by one of Emmylou’s most traditional eras, when she assembled the bluegrass-inspired Nash Ramblers and helped revitalize The Ryman Auditorium and ostensibly the entire Lower Broadway portion of Nashville by recording and releasing an album from the abandoned venue.

And maybe most important to note about Wrecking Ball beyond its influence is that after eighteen albums and at the age of 48, one can argue that this was the album that Emmylou’s voice truly came into full bloom. The way her tone strains and breaks so eloquently, the intelligent way the chords are picked to compliment this phenomenon and put Emmylou uncomfortably between her regular tone and falsetto to squeeze the greatest degree of pain out of each composition is award winning in itself, and along with all of the album’s other notable achievements, is one of the reasons it won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording in 1996.

Wrecking Ball was the result of Emmylou Harris following her heart, searching for a voice she never knew she had, and a vein of country music nobody knew existed before. And even here nearly 20 years after its release, its influence, its beauty, and its place as one of the most important markers on the country music timeline, remains untarnished.

Two guns up.

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Preview & Purchase Original Wrecking Ball Album

Preview & Pre-Order Deluxe Edition from Nonesuch

Mar
19

Don Williams’ “Reflections” Reminds Us of What’s Important

March 19, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  21 Comments

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We hear it all the time. It pursues us throughout our daily lives. It seems to be one of the eternal lessons of life. Yet no matter how much we all believe in the message and take it into our hearts, it is amazing how easily we stray from taking time, slowing down, and appreciating the important things in life and living in the moment. Because no matter how much you tell yourself how paramount this is, there’s an endless world of priorities and distractions awaiting you on your phone, on your computer, and on your television. You can preach the virtues of slowing down all you want, but the best way to drive the message home is by example, and this is what the wise-minded, and golden-throated guru of classic country music Don Williams does on his new album Reflections.

The message wouldn’t have so much meaning behind it if it wasn’t so obvious Don Williams practices what he preaches. He had his day of moving and shaking in the music business (5 CMA Male Vocalist Trophies & seventeen #1′s to be exact), and when it was obvious that the industry had put him out to pasture, he didn’t shake his fists in anger or reconfigure his image to appeal to the younger generation. He was appreciative of the time he spent in the spotlight, and stepped back to rest on his laurels and re-evaluate his priorities. Even now that he’s re-ignited his career of sorts by releasing two albums in the last three years, it seems like he’s doing it only as a dabbler; to get the devil out of him so to speak, so that music doesn’t pursue him in his mind as he tries to relax and revel in his golden years.

don-williams-reflectionsThis is the attitude and approach that Reflections is recorded with—slow and easy—like Don told his wife, “I’ll be back for supper,” and then went out for an afternoon to cut an album of songs that he believes in and lives by every day. Then as producers, engineers, and label people labored to get this record ready for release, it was the farthest thing from Don’s mind as he takes a late breakfast and heads out fishing.

Where Reflections outdoes his 2012 album And So It Goes is in the song selection. Don Williams can sing anything and make it gold, and one of his greatest assets is being able to sing a song that performed by any other artist would come across as sappy, and make it somewhat cool and more universally appealing. But there’s a little bit of swagger, a little bit of grit in some the songs of Reflections, not necessarily in the words, but just in the attitude. Selecting a song from Townes Van Zandt in “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”, and from Merle Haggard in “Sing Me Back Home” which refers to Merle’s stint in prison, gives this album some gravel, despite the otherwise smooth and subdued approach of the music. Yet these two famous covers still sit well within the theme of the album of appreciating the small things in life.

Reflections is much more than just the easy listening country it may appear to be on the surface. It’s an album with a message, and leads by example. Instead of whining about the state of country music, it does something about it.

The laid back, gentle-of-mind ease drips from this album like the sweetness of sun-drenched dew. Sometimes it’s simply implied, and other times it’s directly spoken, like in the appreciative and well-written “Working Man’s Son” or the song that ties the entire theme of Reflections together, “Back To The Simple Things.” Enough can’t be said either about the Townes cover “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”. Like when Willie and Merle took “Pancho & Lefty” to another level, Don Williams’ touch on this song immortalized it, and in a different time it would have been a super hit.

Reflections is the album we needed right here, right now. Not just from the perspective of saving country music, but the perspective of saving ourselves from the overwhelming onslaught of ensnaring technologies that rob the preciousness from life.

Two guns up.

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Purchase Reflections from Sugar Hill Records

Preview & Purchase Tracks on Amazon

Mar
17

South By Southwest 2014 In Pictures

March 17, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  12 Comments

Saving Country Music was out and about Austin, TX and its outskirts over the past week or so as part of the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) gathering, pounding the pavement and looking for the next country music artist worthy of your ears that you may never otherwise hear about. In the coming months I look forward to taking some of these discoveries and sharing them with you. But in the meantime to tide you over, here are some pictures from last week’s festivities taken mostly by Charlie Ekstrom of Almost Out of Gas.

You can also read an in-depth account of our SXSW doings and see more pictures on Rhythms Magazine.


Willie Watson 

Founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show & amazing traditional country & folk artist. In Willie Nelson’s Luck, TX chapel.

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Mickey Raphael

Willie Nelson’s long-time harmonica player. At Luck, TX.

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Hurray For The Riff Raff

Alynda Lee Segarra from New Orleans. Fast-rising star on ATO Records with a primitive, Appalachian sound. In the chapel in Willie Nelson’s Luck, TX

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Lukas Nelson

Son of Willie. He did this three times in a row at one point, after playing the guitar with his teeth. At Luck, TX.

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The Defibulators

Brooklyn-based 7-piece rebellious country band that hosted the Brooklyn Country Cantina showcase for the 6th year. Singers Bug Jennings from Ft. Worth and Erin Bru share a rambunctious moment. On East 6th Street.

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Tim Easton

Nashville-based sincere, storytelling songwriter. Freebird Showcase in the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store parking lot.

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The Cactus Blossoms

A genuine throwback to the days of close harmonies and a classic sound, indicative of the Louvin and Everly Brothers. At the Brooklyn Country Cantina showcase, East 6th Street.

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Sam Doores of The Deslondes

Definitely a band to watch. Stripped-down, traditional country sound in a busking style from New Orleans. From the Freebird Showcase in the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store parking lot.

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Nikki Lane

Unique, offbeat country whose Dan Auerbach-produced album All or Nothin’ is coming out on New West Records May 6th. At Luck, TX.

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JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers

The former Legendary Shack Shakers frontman has taken what used to be a very primitive, acoustic jug band, and made into an original Dirt Daubers/Shack Shakers hybrid which has become the best of both worlds. At Brooklyn Country Cantina, East 6th Street.

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Shovels & Rope

Now one of the hottest bands in roots music, they give hope to all the other dirty, stripped-down bands of the roots world. One of the headliners on the main stage in Willie’s Luck, TX.

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American Aquarium

Southern rock revivalists featuring excellent songwriting. Their last album was produced by Jason Isbell. In the Luck, TX chapel.

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Sturgill Simpson

With the best shot I or anyone else could get with a contraband camera at this official showcase in the St. David’s Cathedral on 7th St. in downtown Austin. His last song landed him a standing ovation.

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Mar
12

New Video for Johnny Cash’s “She Used To Love Me A Lot”

March 12, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  23 Comments

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This story has been updated.

On Wednesday morning, Legacy Recordings released the official music video for Johnny Cash’s version of the song “She Used To Love Me A Lot” off of the upcoming lost album Out Among The Stars due March 25th.

The video was done by famous Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat. “I’ve been a lifelong fan,” Hillcoat told The Guardian. “The first film I made was a prison film, so there’s definitely a connection there with the whole Folsom prison thing. I was also inspired by his voice, which has a truth to it at all times – that’s always helped me in terms of working with actors, no matter how big … If I recall correctly Cash was one of the first major public figures to openly talk about drug addiction, his inner demons and his problems with women and relationships. America loved him because he spoke for the common man.”

The version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” on the music video is a different mix compared to the initial version originally released in mid-January. Where the first version features acoustic guitar and mandolin, the new version doesn’t. The new version also features organ, while the first version featured piano. Other, more subtle differences can also be heard between the two tracks. Both versions are slated to appear on the album, with one marked as the “JC/EC Version”.

The original recordings for Out Among The Stars were taken from archived masters that were made between 1981 and 1984 with producer Billy Sherrill. They were then “fortified” before being readied for release by a team that included Marty Stuart and Buddy Miller. The fortification process may have resulted in multiple versions of the song.

David Allan Coe, also working with producer Billy Sherrill, was the first artist to release “She Used To Love Me A Lot” in December of 1984, but Cash may have recorded his version first, or around the same time. At the time Sherrill, a Country Music Hall of Famer, was working with both men to help revitalize their careers. Coe’s version eventually reached #11 on the charts. The song was written by Dennis Morgan, Charles Quillen, and Kye Fleming.

Pre-Order Out Among The Stars on CD

Pre-Order Out Among The Stars on Vinyl

The First Released Version:

Mar
11

Kevin Fowler’s “How Country Are Ya?”

March 11, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  39 Comments

Oh Kevin Fowler, what are we going to do with you?

kevin-fowler-colt-fordIf anyone rolled up to this article, saw Kevin Fowler’s name, and without reading another word navigated down to the comments section to elucidate just what a cheese dick he is and how much they hate his face, I couldn’t blame them. Not that the guy doesn’t deserve kudos when considering his entire body of work and what he’s done on and off the stage to help the entirety of the “Texas scene” get its feet under it, but the guy has the propensity to put out some of the most plastic banana bullshit songs you can imagine, and during pretty much the entirety of his career, this has been the material out in front, defining who Kevin Fowler is. Remember when he was running around with women’s underwear on his head, singing a country rap song with Colt Ford? I rest my case.

Let’s face it, Kevin Fowler is kind of a shallow, good-timing dude. Fun at parties, but he’s not going to go all Jason Isbell on your ass and get you crying over an emotionally-charged Cancer song. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with that either, nor do songs like “Hip Hop In A Honky Tonk” or “Pound Sign” necessarily portray his entire body of work fairly.

But here he is doing himself no favors, and lending all sorts of fuel to the bonfires of his detractors by putting out an album with a wild-ass, caricaturist cover, a caricaturist title track, complete with an intro by Earl Dibbles Jr. doing his “crack a cold one” bit, and right off the bat you feel like you’re beholding the Disney version of Texas country.

kevin-fowler-how-country-are-yaWhen I first surveyed this album, you have no idea how much I was licking my chops to use it as the sacrificial lamb in my want to expound on how Texas country can many times be just as bad as Music Row, and in fact seems to be trending more in that direction every year. But I’ll be damned if Kevin Fowler didn’t instill enough redeeming songs and redeeming qualities to this album to where I’d feel like a bully doing anything but saying the good probably outweighs the bad.

To begin with, this is a country record. And when I say country, I mean it is positively drenched in pedal steel, with fiddle and twangy guitar right out front throughout the album, with not really any of the rock-driven sound that at times has defined Fowler’s career. From a music standpoint, and even with some of the songwriting, How Country Are Ya? is pretty smack dab in sort of that early 90′s Alan Jackson, hard country sound with a propensity for a few silly songs and an upbeat kick. Maybe Kevin Fowler is benefiting from mainstream country moving so far away from the traditional sound that his country rock flavor now feels more like authentic honky tonk, but even then I think this is a pretty purely country record through and through.

And I’ll be damned if there isn’t some pretty damn good songs here too. The tracks are quick and catchy. It’s almost like a punk album in the way the songs just seem to fly by. “Before Someone Gets Hurt,” “If I Could Make A Livin’ Drinkin’” and “Girls I Go With,” these are pretty good songs. Like Kevin Fowler says himself in the track “Panhandle Poorboy,” he’s just sort of a simple guy from the Texas plains, and I’m not sure if his lack of a deep poetic brain muscles is something we should let get in the way of enjoying the music. How Country Are Ya? even has an instrumental; the very fun “Mousturdonus”.

At the same time, there’s some real stinkers here, especially to start you off. It’s not that How Country Are Ya? is laundry list or “bro country” per se, it’s that Kevin Fowler makes his own little universe of redundancies and clichés with the sheer amount of drinking songs he does on this album and along his entire body of work. This is unfortunate because taken alone, songs like “If I Could Make A Livin’ Drinkin’” and “Whiskey and I” are really pretty good. He also has a propensity to really rehash tired country themes like “Habit I Can’t Break” comparing quitting cigarettes to quitting a girl; this has got to have been done 100 times by now, or the blatantly obvious “Borracho Grande.” “These day José Cuervo, he’s my only amigo…” Yeah, okay Kevin, could have left this one on the cutting house floor, despite the music for the song being pretty cool.

I wanted to hate this album, and I didn’t. And for a guy that once put Fowler on a “blacklist” (whatever that means) for collaborating with Colt Ford, I guess that’s saying something positive about this album even beyond the specific praises about the country instrumentation and some of the songs. At the sake of sounding blatantly obvious, Fowler could really benefit from reeling in all the bits and and drinking songs, but guess what, that’s him. He’s a wise ass. And where his last album was made with the enemy in Average Joe’s Entertainment (Colt Ford’s label), this one is on his own label. Hidden behind all the antics might be a retrenching of sorts for Fowler on this album, and though you may not like all the results, you can’t fault the man for being himself.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

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Purchase How Country Are Ya? from Kevin Fowler

Preview & Purchase Tracks on Amazon

Mar
10

10 Artists to Check Out Even If You’re Not Going to SXSW

March 10, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  19 Comments

Oh you poor little non-SXSW goers, you’re social network feeds are about to get positively inundated with South By Southwest information, riddling your psyche with scores of free music events you’re unfortunately missing out on, resulting in an experience for you somewhere between the teasings of a cruel temptress, and Chinese water torture.

So in the spirit of wanting to bridge the SXSW haves and have not’s, here’s a list of artists that all happen to be attending SXSW (and their appointed set times), but are worthy of being checked out more in-depth even if you can’t make it down to Austin, TX to get raped for parking and sit in lines for 7 hours a day.


Sturgill Simpson

Saving Country Music’s reigning Artist of the Year, this country music savior has a hot new album out in High Top Mountain, and another one on the way called Metamordern Sounds in Country Music out May 13th, and might be the most worthy up-and-coming country music personality to see at SXSW 2014. Sturgill Simpson is so good, even if you consider yourself more of an Americana or roots fan, he’s still worth checking out.

  • Sat. 15th 7PM, St David’s Historic Sanctuary, 304 E 7th St.


shakey-gravesShakey Graves

If anyone is showing up to SXSW with tons of positive momentum behind him, it would be Shakey. It probably helps that he cut his teeth in Austin, playing regularly at places like The White Horse and Hole in the Wall. He’s now reportedly transitioning from a solo act to a full band sound, and whether you get Shakey solo or Shakey 2.0, he’s certainly worth rerouting your SXSW itinerary to catch.

  • MONDAY, 3/10: 10:00pm – Spider House Ballroom (2906 Fruth St) – Mother Falcon’s All The Friends Ball
  • TUESDAY, 3/11: 6:30pm – KLRU Studio 6A (2504-B Whitis Ave) – Premiere screening of PBS documentary on Shakey Graves “Not Alone” + live performance
  • WEDNESDAY, 3/12: 1:00pm – Cedar St. Courtyard (208 W. 4th St) – FILTER/Lagunitas Party
  • THURSDAY, 3/13: 12:50pm – Weather Up (1808 E. Cesar Chavez) – Billy Reid Showcase
    4:00pm – Licha’s Cantina (1306 E. 6th St) – Audiotree Showcase
    7:25pm – Heartbreaker Banquet at Willie Nelson’s Luck, TX Ranch
  • FRIDAY, 3/14: 12:30pm – Spotify House (901 E. 6th St)
    5:05pm – The 512 (408 East 6th St) – Colorado Music Party
    1:00am – The Gatsby (708 E. 6th St) – Pandora / Americana Music Association Showcase (official SXSW)
  • SATURDAY, 3/15: 11:00pm – Holy Mountain Backyard (617 E. 7th St.) – New Frontier Touring Showcase (official SXSW)

possessed-by-paul-jamesPossessed by Paul James

The school teacher by day turned music savant by night will be plying his craft at SXSW on the heels of being featured on NPR and CMT, and ahead of an appearance at Pickathon and many other festivals this summer. This high-energy and enigmatic solo performer is spiraling up the music world staircase with songs that resonate deeply with fans from all across the roots music landscape.

  • Mon. 10th, 8:00 PM, Hotel Vegas, 1500 East 6th Street
  • Wed. 12th, 5:30 PM, ABGB, 1305 West Oltorf Street
  • Fri. 14th, 11:30 PM, Austin Moose Lodge XSXSW 7 2103 E M Franklin Ave.

 


Hurray for the Riff Raff

Hurry for the Riff Raff is Alynda Lee Segarra, and sometimes other accompanying musicians, who evoke the musical traditions of Appalachia with a newer, Americana approach mixed in. Critically acclaimed and a favorite of her musical peers and fans of songwriting and traditional music alike, she just released her latest album Small Town Heroes and will be one of the rising roots stars attending SXSW in 2014. Gillian Welch for a new generation.

  • Wed. 12th, Mello Johnny’s, 2:00 PM
  • Wed. 12th, Weather Up, 1808 E Cesar Chavez St., 5:50 PM
  • Fri. 14th, Hotel San Jose, 4:00 PM
  • Fri. 14th, The Gatsby, 10:00 PM


willie-watsonWillie Watson

This former and founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show is now out to make his own name as a solo folk singer, and will be attending SXSW ahead of the release of his David Rawlings-produced debut album Folk Singer, Vol. 1 out May 6th that features standard and obscure roots songs. Those who’ve followed string bands for a while will recognize the name, and most lovers of sincere music soon will with the way Willie Watson engages crowds and weaves his craft.

  • Wed. 12th, 11:00 PM, St. David’s Episcopal Church, 301 E. 8th St.
  • Thur. 13th, Heartbreaker Banquet, Luck, TX.

 


john-fullbrightJohn Fullbright

The former Turnpike Troubadour who surprised everyone in 2012 when his debut album From The Ground Up was nominated for a Grammy, John Fullbright is one of Americana’s brightest future stars and a top shelf songwriter to boot. And as you can see from his SXSW schedule, he’s willing to put the sweat equity into career. We all pray that the traffic sea parts for you often this week, John.

  • 3/11 – The Oklahoma Showcase @ The Buffalo Lounge (set time: 1:00am)
  • 3/12 – Thirty Tigers Showcase @ St. David’s Historic Sanctuary (set time: 12:00am)
  • 3/13 – Heartbreaker Banquet’s Chapel Stage @ Willie Nelson’s Ranch in Luck, TX (set time: 4:15pm)
  • 3/14 – Live Vibe Presents The Listening Room @ Winflo (set time: 1:15pm)
  • 3/14 – Sin City Social Club SXSW Bash @ St. Vincent’s (set time: 4:00pm)
  • 3/14 – Hill Country Live SXSW Showcase @ Saxon Pub (set time: 10:30pm)
  • 3/15 – Twangfest Party @ Broken Spoke (set time: 2:30pm)
  • 3/15 – Folk Alliance Showecase @ Threadgills (set time: 5:00pm)
  • 3/16 – Music City Texas Showcase @ G&S Lounge (set time: 6:30pm)

 


Steelism

One of the strangest projects you can probably partake in at SXSW that would still fall within the big tent of the “country” world, but also one of the coolest and most creative, is steel guitar player Spencer Cullum Jr.’s Steelism band. You may recognize Spencer, as well as Steelism guitar player Jeremy Fetzer from Caitlin Rose’s band. Essex-native Spencer Cullum has also played with Jonny Fritz, and many others from the current east Nashville scene. Others you may see fleshing out the Steelism lineup at any given time are Mike Rinne, Matt Rowland, Jon Radford, and Andrew Combs. Who said the steel guitar was dead?

  •  Wed. 12th, 11:00 PM, Tap Room at The Market, 311 Colorado St
  • Fri. 14th, 8:00 PM, Shotguns, 503 East 6th St.


robert-ellisRobert Ellis

Texas native and current Nashvillian Robert Ellis is certainly a candidate to take that critical acclaim baton from Jason Isbell and run with it as an artist who seems to effortlessly deliver songs with cutting emotional moments in an awe-inspiring display of deft creativity. His much-anticipated new album Lights From The Chemical Plant is full of those instances that give you shivers from their bold illustration of wit and self awareness.

  • Wed. 12th, 7:00 PM, Paste Party @ Swan Dive, 615 Red River Street
  • Thur. 13th, 5:20 PM, Weather Up, 1808 E Cesar Chavez St.
  • Thur. 13th 7:00 PM, Threadgills, 301 West Riverside Drive
  • Thur. 13th 8:00 PM, Red 7, 611 E 7th St
  • Fri. 14th, 5:00 PM, Hotel San Jose, 1316 S Congress Ave

 


lydia-lovelessLydia Loveless

Artists that just released albums seem to flock to SXSW light moths to the lamp, and such is the case for Bloodshot Record’s cowpunk princess Lydia Loveless that has many singing her praises after the release of her latest album Somewhere Else. Lydia Loveless isn’t just empowered, she’s uninhibited. Subtly and coyness are shades she rarely paints in. Instead she opens her mouth and the truth comes out unfettered, refreshingly honest, and many times, R-rated, revealing her sinful tendencies and struggles with self-admitted inadequacies that sometimes veer her towards self-destructive behavior.

  • Tue. 11th, 8:00 PM, Hole In The Wall
  • Wed. 12th, 10:00 PM, The Continental Club
  • Fri. 14th, Yard Dog Art Gallery
  • Thur. 13th, Noon, The Broken Spoke
  • Thur 13th. 2:00 PM, Swan Dive
  • Thur 13th, 6:30 PM, Hole In The Wall

 


robbie-fulksRobbie Fulks

With a gift for poetry like Townes Van Zandt, and a penchant for the whimsical, progressive approach to bluegrass akin to John Hartford, Robbie Fulks isn’t your typical up-and-coming SXSW attendee, but a wily veteran coming back for the action. His recent album Gone Away Backward from Bloodshot Records was a Saving Country Music Album of the Year candidate in 2013.

  • Wed. 12th, 9:00 PM, The Continental Club
  • Thur. 13th, 4:00 PM, The Broken Spoke
  • Fri. 14th, Yard Dog Art Gallery
  • Sat. 15th, 2:00 PM, Brooklyn Country Party @ Licha’s Cantina
Mar
9

Beck’s “Morning Phase”: A Country or Americana Album?

March 9, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  22 Comments

“I played the Hollywood Pantages Theatre a year or so ago and Beck opened the show for me. So I listened to him behind, backstage. I was so impressed with the way he could do Appalachian music. You know, hillbilly? He’s really good at it. And then of course his own songs. And I especially liked “Rowboat.” It sounded like something I might have written or might have done in the 60′s. You know, when I was kind of going through some weird times.” — Johnny Cash (watch)

Johnny Cash went on to record Beck’s pedal steel doused “Rowboat” on his American Recordings-era Unchained album from 2002.

beck-morning-phaseIt’s been my contention for years that if genre bending pioneer Beck ever made a straight up country record, it could have a similar effect as when The Byrds, heavily influenced by Gram Parsons, released Sweetheart of the Rodeo, allowing young hip listeners outside of country’s borders to realize the virtues of the genre. Maybe Beck doesn’t have the type of sway over young hip listeners he once did, but when the initial chatter about his first album in five years called Morning Phase began to surface, it seemed like it might be a candidate for Beck’s long-awaited dedicated dive into country. “The songs are coming out of a California tradition,” Beck told Rolling Stone. “I’m hearing the Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Gram Parsons, Neil Young – the bigger idea of what that sound is to me.”

It’s interesting that a lot of the talk into today’s popular music is about the blurring of genre lines and the lack of proper labels for music, when this has been Beck’s medium for going on 25 years. Today’s machinations of genre bending come prepackaged in explanations of how they’re “innovative” and how music must “evolve”, when Beck was doing this stuff, and in much better form before many of these artists were even born. And his genre-bending baseline wasn’t Jason Aldean and T-Pain, but Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, and The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. It’s Beck’s respect for the roots of all music, including country, that make him so adept at shifting between genres with ease, and blending influences without disrespecting their origination.

But as hopeful as one may have been that Morning Phase would finally be that Beck foray into country or even Americana we’d been waiting for, neither of these terms is really a fair way to portray this new album. Instead Morning Phase is much more akin to Beck’s subdued and aptly-named Sea Change album from 2002, with a very spatial, atmospheric, and moody approach. Though certainly the California country influences can be inferred throughout Morning Phase, and some mandolin, steel guitar, and other country elements make appearances, this is really a string-filled, emotionally-heavy and sonically-airy album this is meant most for it’s artistic expression and resonant mood that lingers with the listener.

Morning Phase is an audiophile’s dream, with full, rich, vibrant hues of sound, recommended to be imbibed through a big stereo system or high grade headphones. Beck reportedly has made the album available for free streaming on airplanes, which seems very apropros to the spirit and mood of this project. Whereas many of the Byrds and Gram Parsons influences that Beck alluded to being included are things you must listen for, Neil Young’s propensity to simply let chords and the tension and resolution they afford tell the story, is something that’s definitely at the heart of Morning Phase, and principally comprises the two string tracks “Cycle” and “Phase”.

A couple of the issues that linger with the album is that a few of the melodies feel a little recycled, like with the songs “Blue Moon” and “Say Goodbye,” but maybe they’re subtle enough not to be picked up commonly. Morning Phase also feels a little too much like Beck’s previous album Sea Change to the point where it doesn’t have that stark sense of originality you’re usually greeted with by a Beck project. Even the two album covers have a commonality, though this may have been on purpose.

At the risk of sounding obvious, the song “Country Down” is the one track on Morning Phase that country listeners should zero in on if they’re looking for something specific, but this album really doesn’t have a sour note or shallow moment throughout, and you can’t go wrong with giving the entire effort a chance. It’s certainly not country, and not really Americana either in my estimation, but that in no way should hinder Morning Phase from being considered good.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Preview & Purchase Tracks from Morning Phase

Mar
9

Old Time Country w/ the Urban Pioneers’ “Addicted to the Road”

March 9, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  8 Comments

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Call them the underground roots house band or the underground roots All-Star Band, either way the super couple of fiddle player Liz Sloan, and upright bass player (and banjo player, apparently) Jared McGovern have comprised, and do comprise the backbone of so many hard-working, road-weary roots bands, it’s a wonder they have any time to breathe, let alone record their own album. But here they are dubbing themselves the Urban Pioneers and releasing Addicted to the Road: a primitive, rootsy, Appalachian-style record showcasing a lot of heart, all original songs, and surprising skill in songwriting from two players who are mostly known as sidemen.

Jared and Liz first met the day before Halloween in 2010 right before a gig with country music wild man Bob Wayne at Austin, TX’s infamous Hole in the Wall venue. Liz Sloan was already touring with Bob, and Jared McGovern saddled up with the outfit that night, and the rest is history. For a good while they stared at the back of Bob Wayne nearly every evening, criss crossing the country many times, and dashing over to Europe, while in between shows working with other bands like Filthy Still, sitting in on recording sessions with a slew of other outfits, and eventually amicably parting ways with Bob and becoming badasses in the world-class Broken Band that backs former Saving Country Music Artist of the Year Jayke Orvis.

urban-pioneers-addicted-to-the-roadWhen I first heard about the Urban Pioneers, I was a little worried. Sometimes when sidemen decide to slide over to stage center, it can be a little rough. Not that McGovern and Sloan showed chinks in their armor; in fact it’s quite the contrary. The latest evolution of Jayke Orvis’s Broken Band is one of the most premium displays of string band talent out there right now, pushing the respective players to perfect themselves beyond the natural-given skill sets in an awesome display of spellbinding adeptness. But can these two really sing and write their own songs and hold an audience by themselves? The answer conveyed through Addicted to the Road is “Yes”.

The key to the success of the Urban Pioneers project was their decision to take it in a primitive, old time country direction. It is perfect for the skills that Jared McGovern and Liz Sloan bring to the table, is complimentary of their strengths and weaknesses, while giving them the ability to mostly re-create what you hear on the album in the live context. The singing on this album isn’t perfect; it’s lacking a little bit of confidence with some of the songs. And while that confidence will come with time, the simple approach to the singing on the album actually fits the Appalachian style of being just a couple of pickers on a back porch playing home spun tunes, not really resulting in a detriment to the album, but bolstering its authenticity.

Addicted to the Road has some really great tunes that fit very well in the old time style with cadence, theme, and perspective. This is Ralph Peer type stuff, really clever and informed in how they choose their words, honoring the era of the music so the lyrics and musical style coincide. Some of the songs near the end get a little thin, but “Apparition In The Fog,” “Autumn Time,” “Ain’t Gonna Work,” “Izzy’s Song,” “Liz’s Reel” and others are excellent little compositions written sincerely and arranged well.

There’s a lot of Hackensaw Boys and Foghorn Stringband in the Urban Pioneers approach: authentic, energetic, while resisting the urge to pass completely into the punk roots realm. There’s also a cool change-of-pace in the song “Broken Down” that features James Hunnicutt on electric guitar, and more of a Dave Dudley, hard country sound. Not a perfect project, but an excellent start, very fun to listen to, and makes me really look forward to what the Urban Pioneers might cook up in the future.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

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The Urban Pioneers are currently on tour. Cover by Lou Shields.

Preview & Purchase Addicted to the Road

Mar
8

High Marks for Red Eye Gravy’s “Dust Bowl Hangover”

March 8, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  11 Comments

red-eye-gravy-dust-bowl-hangover

You wouldn’t traditionally think of Oklahoma as a proving ground for cowpunk. As the home to some of the wealthiest names country music can boast like Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, and Mr. & Mrs. Blake Shelton, all sharing the same dirt with many of the founding members and freshest names in the Red Dirt/ Texas country scene like Jason Boland and the Turnpike Troubadours, it’s hard to see where there would be the space for a bunch of loud-playing, punk-inspired hillbillies to get a word in edgewise.

red-eye-gravyBut then again, Red Eye Gravy is not your prototypical cowpunk band. Sure, their sound in places builds out from a high-energy, hard country mindset with the train beat being slapped out in the background, but many of Red Eye Gravy’s songs veer toward the traditional side of country and stay there, while others show they type of depth of songwriting and composition usually reserved for the Americana tag. In the end what you get with Red Eye Gravy is a little bit of all the good stuff and in just the right measure, similar to the homemade concoction that constitutes the band’s name, famous for combining country ham drippings and coffee to smother your favorite Southern food in comfort.

Though I wouldn’t go far as to characterize Red Eye Gravy’s new album Dust Bowl Hangover as conceptualized, there’s certainly a thread and a message throughout this project, very much inspired by the band’s Oklahoma surroundings and the history thereof, painting a very ominous and bleak picture for the plight of the poor man from the dusty plains, both of yesterday and today. Destitution and heartbreak are the theme of Dust Bowl Hangover, however the music itself is a very enjoyable experience, with great melodies, catchy hooks, smart and engaging arrangements, and a remarkable amount of spice and variety in the instrumentation to really elevate this album to something much higher than the band’s humble, undiscovered status.

red-eye-gravy-dust-bowl-hangoverThere’s a surprise around nearly every corner of Dust Bowl Hangover. “Hard Livin’ (Comes Easy To Me)” is one of the best country music songs I’ve heard all year so far. The subdued artistry and songwriting efforts of songs like “Take Me Back” and “Pistol” counterbalance the balls-out attitude of cowpunk rockers like “I Wanna Go Home” and “Swingin’ From A Rope.” “Never Thought It Could Be” taps into an excellent melody while a unexpected, muted trumpet takes it to the next level of taste and artistry. Then the very next song “Oklahoma Girls” is an offbeat, foul-mouthed hillbilly elbow swinger featuring some awfully impressive Oklahoma yodeling very few could pull off with such authenticity and skill.

The greatest virtue of Dust Bowl Hangover is that if I was trying to lure an Americana listener into this album, I could pick out a couple of songs that would immediately speak to them. Same could be said for the cowpunk/hellbilly crowd, or for the folks whose hankering is for Texas country. Some of the heavy language here and there, or the stark variety might turn some people off or make Dust Bowl Hangover one to be picked through instead of enjoyed cover to cover, but there truly is something here for everyone, and in multiple servings. The 16 songs may have been a little too much (though the first and last tracks serve as an intro and outtro), and maybe a weaker song like “Give Down The Country” that somewhat failed to meet its objective could have been left on the sidelines and the album condensed down to be even more potent. But I fail to find the passion for many gripes about this effort, and Dust Bowl Hangover comes highly recommended.

Two Guns Up.

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Red Eye Gravy is featured on the latest episode of the “Old Soul Radio Show”.

Purchase Dust Bowl Hangover from Red Eye Gravy

Preview & Purchase Tracks on Amazon

Mar
4

Don Williams Covers Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”

March 4, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  19 Comments

don-williams-reflectionsFor eight lonely years in the oughts we traversed the long, dark gulf between Don Williams releases, when country music’s “Gentle Giant” retired to his farm to live the same warm, reflective life referenced in many of his songs with such soothing presence. A Don Williams song is like being young again and wrapped in the loving, reassuring arms of a grandparent. Sure, there’s a few other country music artists that can play songs in the mid tempo and sing so quietly to where their voice is as delicate as the sides of a soap bubble. But nobody can do it while being as cool as Don Williams.

After releasing And So It Goes through Sugar Hill records in 2012, Don Williams has all of a sudden become downright prolific in the new decade, and his latest release Reflections is due out on Sugar Hill March 11th. Ahead of the release Don teases us with a new song, an adaptation of Texas songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt’s beautiful, disarming tune of love triumphing over freedom, “I’ll Be Here In The Morning.”

Released on Van Zandt’s first official studio record, 1968′s For The Sake Of The Song, “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” was counter to the popular “Ramblin’ Man” notions prevailing at the time in music with male musical characters issuing warnings to their lovers to not expect them to be around for long. The poetic ear the young Van Zandt displays in the song is highly worthy of recognition, even if the theme wasn’t popular or resonant in 1968. However “I’ll Be Here In The Morning,” just like Townes and Don Williams, proved to be timeless.

Recorded live (as can be seen below in the video), Don’s version does what Don Williams does, which is approach a song with such a gentle touch, it revives memory like the sunlight and the feel of the air at the change of seasons. Tasteful instrumentation, including light entrances by banjo, steel guitar, and harmonica embellish the recording, while a two-tone Waylon-esque bass beat drives the song and lead electric guitar indicative of a Mark Knopfler style, and classical acoustic guitar offer a break to Don’s effortless, caramel-swirled vocal tones, holding the words of Van Zandt’s work like a proud father holds his child for the first time.

Two guns up.

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Pre-Order Don Williams’s Reflections

You can also listen to another new Don Williams song “Talk Is Cheap” on Engine 145.

Mar
2

Lake Street Dive’s “Bad Self Portraits”

March 2, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  17 Comments

lake-street-dive

Upon occasion I get salutations from Saving Country Music readers singing my praises for turning them onto one such band or another. A great artist or band can make me look like some kind of damn genius when really I did little more than drop a name. It’s the artists that deserve the credit, and the only genius on my part is simply taking the time to pay attention, and knowing where to look.

At the risk of giving away one of my trade secrets, one of the most surefire resources for discovering great music over the years has been the annual gathering at the Pickathon Festival outside of Portland every summer. That is where I was first wowed by Lake Street Dive going on two years ago now in a performance I later recapped as resulting in “the biggest ovation I think I have ever seen for a live performance, possibly ever. I was afraid the floor was going to cave in.”

Lake Street Dive was invited to return to Pickathon this last year as well, but not as the unknown from the east coast that curious music fans were looking forward to catch a glimpse of, but a band that was on the brink of blowing up, and during this year’s festival Lake Street Dive specifically mentioned how their crazy ride had begun on those Pickathon grounds one year before. Now they’ve released one of the most anticipated records in 2014, and their name recently found its way onto the cover of Rolling Stone as “This year’s best new band.

Lake Street Dive is a neotraditional, throwback group that blends elements of jazz, roots, Motown, and other smoke-filled, bluesy and soulful influences that both awaken the spirit in classic American music while still cleverly residing within its own little niche of the current zeitgeist.

lake-street-dive-bad-self-portraitsYou can’t talk Lake Street Dive without first talking about their leader, one Rachael Price—the stunning New England Conservatory product that started her life’s journey in Nashville’s principal suburb of Hendersonville, and whose name deserves to be mentioned in the exclusive company of contemporary music’s leading ladies worthy of praise for both artistic talent and intangible presence that makes ordinary humans into masters of awakening hearts. Price has the voice of a Staple Singer in the visage of a movie star, and she breaks hearts with the ease invading hordes pillage counties.

But there’s a reason this band isn’t called Rachael Price and the something something’s. Unlike a band like The Alabama Shakes fronted by the big personality of Brittney Howard, Lake Street Dive doesn’t endear themselves to you from their underdog status. Guitar/ trumpet player Mike Olson, bass player Bridget Kearney, and drummer Mike Calabrese all are grand aficionados at their own respective disciplines (in fact I might name Bridget Kearney as one of the best bass players out there right now), and they all aid Rachael Price with splendid and effortless harmony vocals.

Aside from the style of Lake Street Dive which is so immediately inviting to culture thirsty ears looking for music that marks that nexus between substance and pleasurable escape, their music has this wonderful, natural way of achieving excellent arcs in both the story and music that in the space of a three or four minutes have you buying into the characters, cheering or mourning for them, while the music peaks and craters in uncanny parallels with the stirring narratives.

I won’t lie, I was a little worried when I heard Bad Self Portraits was going to be an album featuring only original material from the band. Not that I doubted this four-piece could pull it off, but they do such splendid, unique covers like the five featured on their 2012 EP Fun Machine. I appreciate that it’s time for Lake Street Dive to stand on their own two feet, but it’s also important to feature their best material, original or cover, especially now that the world is watching to see if this is truly the year’s “best new band.” And I’ll be damned if there’s not one song on Bad Self Portraits to second guess. They set the bar high for themselves, clear the mark, and stick the landing.

Bad Self Portraits has songs on it many others will be covering on their own in due course, including maybe some of the style setters that influenced the band’s sound. Their key is peering beyond the surface of classic popular music to the bones beneath, to borrow and refer to, but not steal, and then build their own signature sound around that framework to make something both modern, classic, and timeless.

And something else they deserve kudos for is not including the usual hipster pretentiousness or irony in this project or their show, which is so indicative and almost expected from so many young, left-of-country bands these days. But I have to say, the one big second guess I have on this album is the production on the song “Bobby Tanqueray”, which on it’s own is a marvelous, instant classic of a song, but was sullied by an unfortunate, crunchy guitar tone that doesn’t fit the time or mood of the song, and some overly-loud overdub work that didn’t pan out like one would envision for this song when hearing it live. The song is so good it endures, but this was not the song to saddle with silly studio wankery. The song “Seventeen” also fell a little short, despite a solid premise and performance.

The success and interest in Lake Street Dive means the looking back in music to times when music carried more meaning is still in full swing and continues to nip at the fringes of popular consciousness. Lake Street Dive is a classy, smart, yet accessible and fun band that will help instill a new measure of substance in American music at a time when it is most needed.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Purchase Bad Self Portraits from Lake Street Dive

Preview & Purchase Tracks on Amazon

Feb
26

Dierks Bentley’s “Riser” (Review & Giveaway)

February 26, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  141 Comments

dierks-bentley-riser-banner

For details on how to win a signed copy of Riser, please see below.

When it comes to mainstream country, there’s not many good guys left. They’ve either been aged out, shuffled along, they sold out to stay hip, or they’ve been otherwise marginalized to where you don’t hear about them anymore. And there doesn’t seem to be very many new good guys in the pipeline to replenish the ones we’ve lost, while the promising ones tend to turn to the dark side more often than not.

And then there’s Dierks Bentley.

Sure, if you sign on as a Dierks Bentley fan, you’re going to have to endure some lumps. He’s going to put out a few radio singles per project that are likely to make you wince, and he’s going to get caught with his baseball cap pulled backwards, rubbing elbows with the new school country crowd at award shows and such. But you’re willing to let that stuff slide because Dierks is one of the very last mainstream country males that consistently offers any type of balance and depth to the country music mainstream format.

And no, Dierks is not one of these artists where you tell yourself he’s good just because he’s not as bad as everyone else. On virtually every project, there’s going to be songs that would pass for offerings of artistic substance even under the nose of the hoity toity Americana crowd. He’s also done projects like 2010′s bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge that earned him additional brownie points with discerning music fans, while his off-the-stage persona is one of the few things in country music that a positive consensus can be built around.

Even the radio hit singles he does release aren’t going to be anywhere near the level of the genre’s worst offenses, and he’s never gone in the direction of releasing country rap or heavily-digitized EDM-inspired awfulness for his fans to fight through. Even if you don’t like Dierk’s music, it’s hard to not finger him as one of the few dudes left on country radio country that has been able to hold on to his true self.

dierks-bentley-riserDierks Bentley’s Riser is an inspired, rising effort from stem to stern, with sweeping compositions that generally convey this uplifting, airy and expansive condition, despite a sorrowful and reflective tone beneath the surface. At the risk of sounding cliché, Riser was cut during an emotional time, bookened by the death of Dierks’ father, and the birth of his son, and this type of environment created a work that was somehow both secondary, yet keenly focused. He brought his personal life with him to the studio, and it is reflected even in some of the more commercial material, in a drive to make a project bigger than himself.

Unfortunately though, as you can expect from a Dierks release, a few of the songs didn’t get the memo, namely the silly “Drunk On A Plane” that probably won’t even be well suited for radio, and the very checklist happy “Sounds of Summer”. “Pretty Girls” and “Back Porch” are also somewhat unfortunate, and I can’t be the only one that noticed the similarities between the album’s first single “Bourbon in Kentucky” and Tom Petty’s “Two Gunslingers”. But once you sweep those things aside (I actually think Bourbon in Kentucky is quite strong despite the similarity), you have a pretty accessible and substantive mainstream progressive country project, setting the bar high for his contemporaries.

“Bourbon in Kentucky” with vocal contributions from Kacey Musgraves is an aching, tension-filled, finely-tooled song that successfully conveys its desired sense of heartbreak in a way that is both accessible and smart. “Say You Do,” “I Hold On,” “Here On Earth,” and “Hurt Somebody” are all high quality Riser offerings, all showing an elevated game from Dierks compared to his country male counterparts. “Damn These Dreams” is the album’s lone subdued moment, and the sea change works well in relating a story that comes across as very personal to Dierks. And the title track, though the lyrics are a little gimmicky at moments, is saved by the smart production; something that graces this project throughout.

Is Riser good ol’ country music done the right way? Of course not. This is a country-inspired rock album. But it is a good one nonetheless that is well-made, inspired, heartfelt, and worth a Hamilton or heavy rotation from your streaming service of choice if you know what you’re getting in to.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

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CONTEST RULES: To enter to win a copy of Riser signed by Dierks, simply leave a comment below with your favorite Dierks Bentley song or album, AND/OR your own opinions on Riser if you already have it (in other words, just leave a comment, and you’ll be entered). Make sure to include your REAL email address when prompted by the comment forum so we can contact you.

Preview & Purchase Tracks on iTunes

Preview & Purchase Tracks from Amazon

 

Feb
25

Melody Williamson’s Studio Version of “There’s No Country Here”

February 25, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  12 Comments

melody-williamsonIt isn’t like the 15-year-old singer-songwriter Melody Williamson and her family band Williamson Branch weren’t worthy of our attention before she released her home-spun video “There’s No Country Here” that would soon go viral, be picked up by multiple news outlets including The Huffington Post, and has now been viewed over 180,000 times (and counting) on YouTube, and 200,000+ on the original Facebook video. But because of the glutted nature of the music landscape these days, sometimes it takes something special to capture our attention and make us stop down and really think about what we’re listening to.

In part, it was the lo-fi nature of the video, Melody’s proclamation at the beginning of the song that it “…truly comes from the bottom of my heart” and that she wasn’t trying to make something to go viral, but something simple on her back porch to share, that made the song so resonant. Sure, country protest songs are a dime a dozen these days, but from a 15-year-old girl? It was one of those moments when it was our job as adults to stop down and pay attention to someone younger than us because in this upside down world, sometimes they are the ones that hold the purest wisdom.

Since releasing the initial video for “There’s No Country Here” in mid January, Melody has recorded a full studio version of the song that is now available for purchase, and she made a key change in the lyrics that make the song even better than the original version. She also recently stopped by the Big D & Bubba syndicated radio show to record a new live version of the song.

As I always say, it won’t be websites, organizations, or awards that will Save Country Music, it will be songs. And Melody Williamson proves why this is true once again with “There’s No Country Here”.

Preview & Purchase Studio Version of “There’s No Country Here”

Feb
23

Lydia Loveless – “Somewhere Else”

February 23, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  23 Comments

 

lydia-loveless

Mammas don’t let your babies grow up to be Lydia Loveless.

Not that Lydia’s parental units have anything to be ashamed of, but the type of unhinged, binge-fueled and bawdy rhetoric Lydia Loveless imbibes in is probably not something any parent has in mind for their little princess while she’s having tea parties at a knee high tables with Queen Piggy and Mr. Frog. Lydia Loveless isn’t just empowered, she’s uninhibited. Subtly and coyness are shades she rarely paints in. Instead she opens her mouth and the truth comes out unfettered, refreshingly honest, and many times, R-rated, revealing her sinful tendencies and struggles with self-admitted inadequacies that sometimes veer her towards self-destructive behavior.

lydia-loveless-somewhere-elseLydia wet our whistles for new music with an EP released late last year called Boy Crazy. Where that project was a fairly lighthearted, hair-twirling affair with a bright yellow cover and devil-may-care attitude, her latest album and second LP from Bloodshot Records Somewhere Else is decidedly a more dark project with moments of real depth not seen before in Lydia’s young career.

The describers for Lydia’s sound out there are all over the place, from a cowpunk princess to an alt-country savant, but I’ve always thought of Lydia solidly in the realm of a garage-like power pop band with many of the earmarks thereof: economical guitar work, potent melodies, and a punk-like attitude that doesn’t sacrifice the prettiness of the music. Despite where you may see the appeal of Lydia’s music reside, you have to search for the country elements.

The one problem with Somewhere Else is that the instrumentation lacks a bit of imagination and diversity, specifically in the guitar work when looking at the project as a whole. It’s just a lot of strumming of chords, calling on many of the same tones throughout the album in songs that seem to hover mostly around the same keys. No specific songs is worth chastising; in fact on their own they each work just fine, and its more a problem of composition than a knock on the band itself. But altogether, the songs tend to bleed into each other and into the songs of the previous EP.

Those specific concerns aside, Lydia Loveless shows great maturity, depth, and diversity in her songwriting that really shines through whatever shortcomings, and makes Somewhere Else a project certainly worthy of your ears.

“Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” about the two famous decadent era poets and their torrid relationship juxtaposed into the complications of a modern relationship is a brilliant little piece of writing.  “Everything’s Gone” is Lydia’s crowning achievement thus far in her career, showing remarkable insight, and delivering a vocal performance that fills as much emotion as humanly possible into the vessel of a story—any more and it would fall apart under its own weight. Both these songs also offer exceptions to the musical diversity issues.

“Wine Lips” is also an enjoyable little tune, and really all of Somewhere Else‘s offerings are embedded with smart little turns and juicy melodies that earworm themselves quite deep. I just wish there wasn’t such a gulf between where Lydia’s writing is, and the sonic palette that she’s pulling from to clothe her tunes. At the same time the young Ohioan is only 23-years-old. She’s got a whole lifetime of music to create, and if Somewhere Else is any indication, it’s going to be productive, fulfilling, and enjoyable.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

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Buy Somewhere Else from Bloodshot Records

Preview & Purchase Tracks from Amazon


Feb
21

Robert Ellis & “The Lights From The Chemical Plant”

February 21, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  12 Comments

robert-ellis

At any point in the greater country music realm, there’s going to be that one artist that sets the cutting edge for artistic expression and critical merit to where a consensus surrounds them as someone other artists should measure themselves against. They make critics swoon and cultured music fans nod with approval, as NPR, American Songwriter, and other such outlets regale them with the highest accolades, no matter how much their music may remain elusive from the mainstream perspective.

Texas native and current Nashvillian Robert Ellis is certainly a candidate to take that critical acclaim baton from Jason Isbell and run with it as an artist who seems to effortlessly deliver songs with cutting emotional moments in an awe-inspiring display of deft creativity. His much-anticipated new album Lights From The Chemical Plant is full of those instances that give you shivers from their bold illustration of wit and self awareness. There’s this sort of graceful command to his songwriting, a confidence beyond his 25 years, to where even when he turns a phrase that you can anticipate or that feels tired, he’ll throw a little hitch in the timing almost as to announce to the listener it’s cliche, in turn erasing the banality of the moment.

robert-ellis-lights-from-the-chemical-plantThe last album from Robert Ellis, 2011′s Photographs, started out as a mostly-acoustic work that trended toward a downright honky tonk sound by the end, and won him deserved critical praise. The Lights From The Chemical Plant, though certainly with its country moments, is overall more of a classic pop album, referring to influences like a post-Garfunkel Paul Simon and James Taylor. The first song on the album “TV Song” is very much out of the Randy Newman playbook, full of irony, but graced with such a loving perspective for its object of ire, you can’t help but be awed by the intellectual skill such a song displays.

“Hipster” is an often-overused and ill-defined term for people to describe others that they generally don’t understand and that happen to be young, and many times white. As time marches on, hipsters seem to be standing out less, and the term generally tends to just represent young artistic-minded white people in general who rely on elements such as exclusiveness and irony to define their cultural attributes. Their perspective is steeped in a whole new set of parameters compared to the multiple generations of slightly older to much older music listeners from many past generations whose musical understanding is centered around structured ideas of eras, genres, and generational gaps.

Many 25-year-olds don’t hate their parents, and never did. There’s not that inherent sense of emptiness and despair, but a sense of quiet celebration. With The Lights From The Chemical Plant, Ellis celebrates the other side of his musical upbringing, that likely wasn’t presented to him as being in conflict with his country roots, but in concert with them. However, much of the current Robert Ellis sound still emanates from the acoustic guitar and pedal steel. The de facto title track “Chemical Plant” is a sweeping, rising, memory-inducing song, very much bemoaning the march of progress and time no different than more accessible country music fare might, just conveyed in a much more intelligent way.

“Steady As The Rising Sun” takes a dedicated look in the liner notes to convince one it was not indeed written by James Taylor, while Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” is a little more obvious as a cover. There are a few very long songs on this album, and at times it becomes somewhat of a problem. The 6 1/2-minute “Bottle of Wine” does a good job capturing a sullen, Tom Waits-esque mood, but the tone of the piano seems a little to resonant and bright, and the song just goes on a little too long to maintain the mood or story. “Houston” is one of the album’s best at highlighting Robert’s strength of songwriting, but the fusion jazz-like ending gets buried somewhat, despite its functionality at offering something different and spicy for the album.

The 7-minute “Tour Song” however could probably go on even longer in the way Ellis weaves a masterful web of language clearly told from his own, heartfelt perspective. “Pride” and “Only Lies” work very well in a way that is unique and new, but that also refers back to the classic mode of 70′s songwriter material. “Sing Along” is the up-tempo, and most-decidedly country song on the album, though it’s counter-religious message might ruffle its core sonic audience. Appeal for “Good Intentions” will be much more universal. In an album with a fiercely artistic bent, this song is rousing and infectious without compromising it’s substance and creativity.

The “Not For Everyone” stamp should be slapped in red letters across the cover of this album, especially for people who consider themselves more country fans than Americana or singer-songwriter fans. But Robert Ellis has done superlative work, and will be graced by the singing praises of critics and cultured roots fans that will likely last all the way until they compile their end-of-year lists.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Purchase Lights From The Chemical Plant from Robert Ellis

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Feb
16

Catching Up With Whitey Morgan & The 78′s

February 16, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  11 Comments

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Pictures provided by Almost Out Of Gas.

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One of the questions that comes up often in country music is “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” There’s a lot of industry country stars that would love to tell you they’re the ones, and they record songs, print up merch, and proselytize at every turn for their candidacy to fill in for the lost country greats. But beyond the glitz and the market-driven image campaigns that surround some of mainstream country’s “New Outlaws” is an artist like Whitey Morgan and his band The 78′s—a no frills, hard-charging honky tonk outfit that tours more than anyone and brings the twang and Outlaw bass beat to country night in and night out, garnering a deep and loyal grassroots following.

But it has been around three and a half years since Whitey Morgan released a record, and rumors of an unreleased live album have been out there for the better part of two. Whitey has recently been hanging around Texas, playing some shows and getting ready to make an appearance at Dale Watson’s inaugural Ameripolitan Awards show on Tuesday, February 18th, and I sat down with him before a Friday night show at The Rattle Inn in west Austin to catch up, and ask him the question Saving Country Music has been swamped with from readers over the last few months.


People ask me this all the time and so I’ll ask you: What can you tell us about new music from Whitey Morgan?

There’s definitely been some label things happening. I’m actually off Bloodshot [Records] now. That was of my doing. I’m a do-it-yourself kind of dude. I just felt like I can do all of this on my own. The next record is going to be huge. I bust my ass out on the road like almost no other band does, and everything I have is from that. It was just time for me to do something on my own and not give away too much of my money to someone who maybe wasn’t holding up their end of the deal. I’m sure they’ll argue with you on that, but that’s a record label. I have a great booking agent now and great management. I can release a record tomorrow, on my own. I have the distribution outside of a label, I have everything I need. So what do I need a label for?

What’s the story of this live album that’s been swirling out there for a while?

The live album has been done for a year and a half. That was part of the Bloodshot thing. As soon as the live album got finished and I gave it to them is when the talk started from my end that I didn’t want to be on the label any longer. Understandably, they recoiled and said “we’re not going to really release this until we resolve whatever is going to happen in this relationship first.” It will come out when it comes out, but I’ve already forgotten about it.

So a new album is in the works?

We just recorded in El Paso for five days at an unbelievable studio with an killer producer. We got three songs just about in the bag, and we’ll be back in May for seven or eight days, and try to finish up the rest of it. It’s a place called The Sonic Ranch. It’s like no other studio I’ve ever been in or even heard about. They have three live rooms and three control rooms, all on a 3,000-acre property. They have accommodations for I think up to 30 or 40 people in different haciendas. They have a staff that does your laundry and cooks every meal for you. My management is friends with the owners. I hate the studio, but I didn’t hate this studio. I didn’t feel like I was in this studio because I could leave and walk out the studio and be forty feet to my front door and it’s just me; I have my own little hotel room right there. Most studios you can’t do that. You’re stuck in there. You can go out to the parking lot and sit in the van.

whitey-morgan-guitar-2Creativity is squashed by studios that don’t have that kind of environment. I almost don’t want to tell anyone about it because I don’t need any more musicians recording there than there already are. And the equipment is unreal. Not just the recording equipment, they have tele’s galore, amps, and everything. It’s unreal. Anything you want, they have it. And it’s all because a guy that has money is passionate about music and recording. To him, it’s the ultimate dream to have musicians come hang out at his place. He’s a great dude.

I’m excited. One of the songs we recorded is an old Bobby Bare tune called “That’s How I Got To Memphis”. We put that one down and I’m really excited about that tune. It’s a little different than my kind of sound. It’s kind of got that early 80′s era sound; it’s got that minor chord in there. It’s slick. I’m trying to move on without moving too far. I know what everybody wants, they want another classic, Waylon-ish sounding album. This one’s going to be a little different, but it’s not going to be that different. We’re doing a Waylon song. I’m not going to say what Waylon song we’re doing, because I don’t think anyone’s ever covered it so I’ll keep my mouth shut on that one. But that was another song we recorded and it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever recorded in my life. The three songs are already leaps and bounds better than the last two albums I did.

The plan is we’re probably going to do an EP, maybe 7 songs. The plan is just to record as much as we can over the next few years. Even if it’s not albums, put out a 7-inch here and there, digitally release two songs. Just keep it going. Never a six month stretch without new songs. And now that I’ve got the studio I want to go to, I can’t wait to just start putting music out, now that I’m able to do it legally.

Who is the producer?

His name is Ryan Hewitt. He’s one of those guys who’s been in a lot of sessions where he was either mixing or engineering or co-producing. He mixed a lot of the Johnny Cash stuff with Rick Rubin, he did The Avett Brothers last three albums. I’ve only ever produced my shit myself. Maybe five years ago I would have been more stubborn. But now, when he’d open his mouth about something, instead of just automatically being like “No, it’s got to be my way,” I think about it from someone else’s point of view and most of the time he’s right. We worked really well together.

Brett Robinson - Pedal Steel

Brett Robinson – Pedal Steel

How are The 78′s treating you?

The last time I saw you I said that was the best band I ever had. It’s even better now. The band right now, we all get along like brothers on stage and off and that’s never happened in the history of my band. Right now, every night I’m smiling, I’m having a good time. It’s been a while. I’m trying to live a little better. But when we went into the studio my anxiety was through the roof because it’s been a while and I only had a few songs prepared really. And it just jelled.

So you feel like things are going in the right direction. Can you see it in the crowds?

Oh yeah. We’re doubling, tripling, quadrupling every show we play. The internet stuff’s been going better. Everything’s been going better. I never go into a show and it’s disappointing. It’s the management and the booking, but really it’s all of it together. The fucking band is good. The old days, we’d be touring forever but it was a half-assed band. Like I’d have a fill-in drummer for eight shows. And the last year and a half to two years it’s been a fucking good band. I would go see this band.

You played Dale Watson’s new bar down in San Antonio recently. How was that?

Big T’s Roadhouse. It’s cool man, its like Little Ginny’s Longhorn Saloon, but out in the middle of nowhere. It’s even white and red, just like Little Ginny’s. About the same-sized joint. We played it on Sunday; it was Chicken Shit Bingo. It was cool, really cool.

I want to know about your guitar.

It was brand new in 2001 I believe. But it was black with white binding. I loved it, but I always wanted a tobacco burst Tele. That’s the look I always love is tobacco burst anything. So I stripped it down, repainted it, and the “WM” I painted it on there by taking some pin striping, masking it, and spraying it. Once the original frets wore out, instead of getting a fret job, I just bought a new neck. That’s the third neck I’ve had on it. It’s the U-shaped, big baseball bat neck, and it’s got new Grover tuners on it. I love it. I go to these vintage shops and pick up these 70′s tele’s and I’m like, “Oh this thing is so rad,” and then I play it and I say, “Mine plays better” because I made it exactly how I want it to play. I ended up using mine in the studio even though they had like six unbelievable tele’s there from the 60′s and 70′s.


The 78′s are Brett Robinson – Pedal Steel, Tony Dicello – Drums, Benny James Vermeylen – Guitar and Backing Vocal, and Alex Lyon – Bass.

See more pictures from the Whitey Morgan & The 78′s Show at the Rattle Inn

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Feb
12

Johnny Cash & Waylon Jennings Duet on “I’m Movin’ On”

February 12, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  22 Comments

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To hear the warm, familiar voice of a legendary country music great again here so many years after they have unfortunately passed on in a new, unreleased and unheard song is a gift from the country music heavens hard to put a true measure on. But to hear two of those legendary voices come back to life, and together no less, is downright country music divinity.

Between 1981 and 1984, Johnny Cash recorded an album with the legendary Hall of Fame producer Billy Sherrill called Out Among The Stars that was subsequently shelved by Columbia Records and lost to the world until the masters were recently discovered during a search for archival Cash material by Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash. The album in its entirety will be released on March 25th, but ahead of the release we’ve been bestowed a prelude track— a duet of Johnny Cash with Outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings, breathing new life into the Hank Snow-penned train tune “I’m Movin’ On.” A version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” was also released from the album in mid January.

waylon-jennings-johnny-cashBeyond the track itself, the archivists were gracious and wise enough to leave some of the studio banter hanging onto the beginning of the recording, really helping to re-evoke the the warmth that Johnny Cash could bring to a room, disarming the studio with laughter to make sure a relaxed take would make it on tape. The track itself is a cooking little tune, just as much in the period style of Waylon as it is Cash, with a half-time hitch in the middle of the song for character, and some great backing instrumentation.

Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins can be heard laying down a piano bed, and though Nashville A-Team studio guitarist Jerry Kennedy likely makes a heavy appearance on the track, I could swear in the second guitar solo I hear the signature styling of Marty Stuart, who was there for the original sessions, and is one of the musicians along with Buddy Miller who helped “fortify” the tracks for this unique release.

This is no world-beater, but it was likely meant to be the up-tempo change in the album and performs this task admirably. Really, Waylon and Cash could both throw a pair of their dirty jockeys in the middle of the studio and we’d probably think it sounded like genius just from the virtue of hearing their voices again. From sharing an apartment together in the 60′s, to having heart surgery at the same time and in the same hospital in the 80′s, to bookending the legendary Highwaymen into the 90′s, there’s just something right about these two men in tandem.

Waylon & Cash, together again.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

Feb
11

Album Review – Eric Church’s “The Outsiders”

February 11, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  177 Comments

Let me begin by saying that I don’t want to write this review. If I had my druthers I would just ignore this album, and focus on something else. But in the face of an absolute onslaught of requests, I will give my personal opinion unfettered and unabridged. I’ll also preface this business by saying that if you like or love this album, that’s all that matters, and my opinion or anyone elses should not sway you from your enjoyment of this music.

Also, before anyone says that it doesn’t matter what kind of album Eric Church released, I would write a negative review for it because of some predisposed bias, or because I do not like the guy on a personal level, go read this review, this review, this review, this review, and take into consideration that his last album Chief was my choice of the albums nominated to be the winner during the last cycle of both the CMA and ACM Awards.

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eric-church-the-outsidersTo put it bluntly, as an album, Eric Church’s The Outsiders is garbage. Does that mean there’s no good songs on it? No, there are some good songs on it, and a few good moments in otherwise not good songs. But as an album, The Outsiders is an absolute, colossal failure of process. It is a muddy mess, with no compass, direction, theme, groove, cohesiveness, or underlying thread connecting the disjointed, ill-conceived and poorly-executed song ideas simply meant to show of how different Eric Church is with no other underlying message or originality of either concept or story. Simply put, The Outsiders is a face plant of the creative process, posing to be “artistic”.

Eric Church is reported to have written a whopping 121 songs for the album before he hit the studio. And judging by the result, I believe him, and wouldn’t be surprised if he’s selling that number short. Apparently we’re supposed to be impressed that 121 songs were vetted for this album, but it speaks to songwriting by formula as opposed to inspiration, and is one of the reasons for the flat, uninspired, and unoriginal result when looking past the histrionics this album contains.

The Outsiders is an exercise of finding the biggest wall available and throwing a disparate hodgepodge of disconnected ideas and undisciplined influences against it to see what sticks. As much as we were sold from the very beginning of this album release that everything would resolve and make sense once we heard the entire project in context, the individual songs released before this album make even less sense now, and the songs as a whole resolve to a sum lesser than their individual parts.

But you won’t hear this from the vast majority of critics. They can’t shut the hell up about how brilliant this album is simply because it isn’t country rap, and it’s not “bro-country” (and UNAPPROVED savingcountrymusic.com term).

First off, I refuse to give into addition by subtraction and give undue credit to music simply because it isn’t as shitty as something else. Is The Outsiders better than Chase Rice, Cole Swindell, or whatever the flavor on the moment in pop country is? Maybe, though at least these guys have some idea of direction. But that doesn’t automatically make Eric Church and The Outsiders “good”. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that music should be judged against it’s peers, but Eric Church’s peers as a reigning Album of the Year winner aren’t Tyler Farr, and Dan + Shay, they’re George Strait and Taylor Swift, and these artists have a theme, a sound, and a direction.

The high-reaching superlatives I have seen attributed to this album from noteworthy and credible sources is nothing short of disturbing, and even at times dangerous. Each to their own opinion, and we can agree to disagree, but when NPR says, “Eric Church is working on a level that few other country artists of his generation can touch,” this speaks to the continued discounting of the leadership the women of country music, and the men of Americana and independent country are displaying. I couldn’t disagree with NPR’s sentiment any more, especially seeing how The Outsiders really isn’t a country album, at all. There’s one track you could call country. Otherwise it is purely rock, and this misappropriation of the “country” term is yet another offense disqualifying this album from being something that should be considered “bold” or “epic”.

One of the biggest proselytizers for this album has been Eric Church himself. “It’s a very polarizing song,” Eric said about “The Outsiders” title track to The New York Times. “Half the people hated it, half thought it was the greatest thing they ever heard. But I think that wide range of opinions means you made something artistic, you actually made art.

Oh, so if you start off with a Waylon phase guitar, lead into a heavy metal song, then speed bump the groove with a couple of interjected Pork Soda prog rock bass guitar solos, add a little pseudo-rapping, and people discredit it for being too busy and lacking direction, that’s how you know it’s “artistic”?

The whole point of this album seems to be to set up Eric Church as this forward-thinking force in country music. But just because you take a bunch of ill-fitting parts and slap them together—as Eric does in numerous songs, and with the overall song selection itself—doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being “artistic.” It’s like people who want to be known as “weird” might dye their hair strange colors, get strange piercings or tattoos, or wear shocking clothing. But this is all superficial. The question is, is this something that is truly groundbreaking, or has it never been done before because it’s ill-advised and doesn’t work?

I don’t even know if the music on this album matters. Eric Church has put his back into cultivating this “Outsider” persona, and the music just seems to be a vehicle to the cultural identity he wants to convey, and his fans want to identify with. The music is almost an inconvenience to Eric Church. As he’s said many times, he hates writing songs. Aside from a few songs that seem to come from the heart, The Outsiders is formulaic themes and sonic trickery. For a song to connect with an individual, it music convey a deep, human feeling. Are you telling me that Eric Church had 121 deep, original human feelings since his last release that he was able to translate into song? The human inspiration on this album was spread so thin across so much material, it was almost completely lost once these tracks were being zapped onto compact disk.

And back to the point of praising The Outsiders for not being “bro-country” or country rap, I’m not sure if those people’s review copies are missing tracks, but I am hearing both these elements, as well as EDM electronic wankery make an appearance on the album. Is it to the degree of some of Eric Church’s mainstream male counterparts? No, but the song “Cold One” is a total bro-country beer song, and “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” features multiple stanzas of rapping. You listen to a song like “Talladega,” and it’s straight up pop country. Leadership? Boldness? The songs that could be accidentally identified with having these qualities are the album’s worst tracks because they’re simply a bunch of ill-fitting parts slapped together.

There are some decent songs on The Outsiders though. But to grade the album fairly, you have to break it down to the individual songs. The songs themselves are too disjointed to critique collectively. As for the album itself, I would give it:

1 1/2 of 2 guns DOWN.

Individual Song Reviews

1. “The Outsiders”

Beyond my original review for this song, I’d like to point out how we were told some of the strangeness of the music and message of this song would all resolve and make sense when put in the context of the entire album. Of course, as always with theses promises, this wasn’t the case whatsoever. In the context of the album, this song comes across as even more ill-advised. There really was no “Outsiders” theme holding the work together.

“The Outsiders” is an attempt to write and produce a song by aggregating popular sonic elements and trying to squeeze them together instead of simply drawing a story and three chords from inspiration. The result is a Frankenstein-like monster; a colossus of corporate music that threatens to kill its makers. Though this type of machination might be acceptable, or even appreciated in some outer fringes of the metal world, in the country music format it’s downright laughable. (read full review)

Two guns down.

2. A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young

One of the recurring themes of The Outsiders is that “sounds familiar” feel. Eric seems to always shine in the stripped-down format. His pretentiousness is what keeps most from his music, and in his unguarded moments is when he draws you in. And so even though “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” is a song that has been done many, many times, this is one of the albums better tracks.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

3. Cold One

For the people proselytizing that The Outsiders as the anti “bro-country” epic, this song is a problem. It’s not your typical laundry list, dirt road and tailgate song, but it’s pretty close, with its premise beginning and ending with beer. Though it’s arguably the most country track on the album, there’s some pop and rock elements here, like the harsh, purposely-ugly guitar part meant to mimic the blurred mind of a beer binge, and the record skipping near the end that refers to the new school, EDM influence creeping into the country format. These things aren’t Eric Church leading, they’re Eric Church following. Yes, the sped up bridge in the middle of the song is pretty fun, but again is a borrowed, often-called upon element. The story is nothing special, though the wit of the “Cold One” double meaning is appreciated. Not bad, but not as good as some will sense at first listen.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

4. Roller Coaster Ride

Oh Eric!

Folks, this isn’t a pop country song, this is a pop song pure and simple. From the storyline, to the sonic elements, this song was built to be the soundtrack to a future Lexus commercial. Church’s “artistic” touch is to add an unfortunate synthesized sound bed that comes streaking in and out throughout the song. Picture yourself as Atreyu riding on the back of the Luck Dragon through the wispy clouds of Fantasia. Church fans may fall in love with this song, but hey, that’s the allure of pop music; it’s instantly catchy in lieu of delivering long-term substance. I guess Church thinks he makes up for at all at the end when his synthesized sounds turn sinister. Laughable.

Two guns down.

5. Talladega

Ha! This song has been done a million and one times, and yet again for all the “epic” and “artistic” praise this album has received, here is another placid and predictable, straightforward pop country tune. It’s a nostalgic, reminiscent song built mostly around the power of the word “Talladega”, but there’s a decent sense of story here, and the song works, mostly because Church resists the urge to add some ill-advised guitar solo or electronic interjections like he does on other tunes. He should see if Rascal Flatts wants to cut this on their next record.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

6. Broke Record

Listening to the song was one of numerous times I kept picturing Sheryl Crow circa late 90′s when listening to this album. This is a catchy little rhythm-based tune that adeptly slides its fun lyrics in between the starts and stops and gets your foot tapping just fine. Aside from a very short moment heading into the bridge and a pretty good acoustic guitar solo, this is a silly little roots pop song that is harmless, but certainly nothing special; quick to grab your attention, but soon to be forgotten.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

7. Like A Wrecking Ball

Not bad at all. Could have done with a little less reverb on Eric’s vocal signal, but this is one of the few songs on the album that seems to come from a personal, inspired story from Eric Church himself instead of an easy-to-fall-back-on trope of modern popular music. At the same time, there’s really nothing special here. For once, some of Eric’s studio wizardry may have helped give this song a little something to make it memorable. Like virtually every song on the album, there’s nothing country about it whatsoever. But it works I guess.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

8. That’s Damn Rock & Roll

It was at this point in the album when I wondered why the hell I was even listening to this. What type of aberration of the term “country ” allowed this album, and this song to come into my life where I would be forced to give my opinion on it?

Between the Duran Duran tone of the electric guitar, rapping, the Annie Lennox banshee screams (which by the way, in the appropriate context would be awesome), and the general bellicose grandstanding about the format Eric Church wish he was in instead of the industry that is promoting his music, this song is ill-conceived on just about every single level. Some of the lyrics and the sentiment behind the song will get some people’s blood pumping, but this is all a derivative of pushing sonic buttons and pandering to constituencies instead of some original expression or the delivery of any true substance.

This is out generation’s “We Built This City” from Starship. Marconi plays the Mamba.

Two guns down.

9. Dark Side

Finally everything comes together. Where the rest of the album generally takes the form of ill-fitting parts, with Church matching up audio features that he wants to play with, with songs and themes that they have no business being in, here a progressive, stripped-back, and tasteful approach is the perfect texture for the story that you can tell has a truly personal meaning to Eric. This song is nothing short of excellent.

Two guns up.

10. Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)

Pure marketing and pandering to Eric Church’s Outlaw/Outsider manufactured image with no redeeming value. A farce. Bullshit. An insult to the intelligence of every listener.

Two guns way down.

11. Give Me Back My Hometown

To the mainstream country ear, “Give Me Back My Hometown” must sound nothing short of foreign and refreshing. But to an ear with a more wide sense of perspective, especially when the heavy bass drum beat and hand claps kick in about 1/3′rd of the way through the song, a strong, pungent Lumineers influence reveals itself quite obviously…Once again we see a symptom of Music Row being 18 months behind the relevancy arch, and just now catching up with what was cool last year, despite feeling cutting-edge within the format….All those observations aside though, simply based off of the ear test, “Give Me Back My Hometown” is not bad. The song works. (read full review)

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

12. The Joint

I don’t know. A stupid amalgam of sound to let you know how awesome and creative Eric Church is.

One gun up, one gun down.

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